Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
(Editor’s note: because of glitches with posting longer interviews, I’ve divided this lively “chat” into two parts; don’t miss the conclusion tomorrow!) A first for this feature: a joint interview with two education professionals! I am so grateful to Dr. Terrell Young (now at BYU) for introducing me to Andrea Patterson and Nicki Blake, a dynamic duo from eastern Washington.
Nicki (l), Andrea (r)
Nicki is District Coordinator of Early Childhood, ACES, Parent Involvement, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). Andreais currently teaching second grade at White Bluffs Elementary in Richland WA. Like our featured guest from last week, these two women are passionate about poetry, especially something called “poetry breaks.” I think a cafe au lait would be the perfect drink to sip while reading this interview. Enjoy!
Our custom here is to peek into the past.
Favorite school lunch as a kid:
Nicki: Definitely the cheese zombie and tomato soup. Cheese zombies were a little like toasted cheese sandwiches, but they were baked and dripping with melted cheese. I liked to dip my cheese zombie into the tomato soup!
Andrea: Boy, that’s a tough one. I really liked the “pup in a blanket”, the mashed potatoes and gravy but I think I would have to go with the chili and cinnamon rolls! I can remember pouring a little milk in my chili and devouring my cinnamon roll. In fact it still is my favorite school lunch.
Best friend in grade school:
Nicki: I spent my grade school years on a competitive gymnastics team that did a lot of traveling. My two best friends were on the gymnastics team with me. Their names were Nancy Pence and Jennifer Carstens.
Andrea: I had a lot of grade school friends and we played house with our dolls. However, my friends, Becky Woodford and Jennifer Pope, from middle school are still my friends today.
Times you were the new kid in school:
Nicki: I was lucky because I lived in the same house my whole life. I went to only one elementary school, one Junior High School, and one High School. When I was entering school as the new kid, I had lots of other kids who were also new. That doesn’t mean I didn’t worry A LOT about the first day of school, having a new teacher, and fitting into a new class each year.
Andrea: I too was lucky because I only had to be the “new kid” once in my life, and it was in kindergarten. The hardest part of that was I loved my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Barton. But when I moved in the middle of the year my new teacher wasn’t as nurturing and I was sure she didn’t like me.
Teacher who inspired you to stretch:
Nicki: I was really shy when I was younger. So shy, that I would hardly speak. I have a twin brother who was very outgoing. During my primary years, my brother would do a lot of the talking for me. In third grade, I had a teacher named, Mrs. Peterson. She was the first teacher I really felt built an extra kind and caring classroom environment that allowed me to come out of my shell and take some risks as a learner. In third grade, I took off as a reader, learned cursive, and gained some confidence in math.
Andrea: I loved school! Reading was hard for me and I can remember being in the low group. I was a super speller and math was definitely my strength. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Hester, really stretched my mathematical thinking and she made me believe that I could solve any problem. Another teacher that inspired me was Mrs. Peters, my sixth grade teacher. She was the best. It was her first year as a teacher and she took us on two or three field trips. One o
f them was to Cannon Beach, Oregon. I would have done anything she asked because of the relationships that she built with her students.
The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:
Nicki: I devoted many hours a week to gymnastics with the hope of competing on the United States Gymnastics Team. That never happened! I worked hard, met a lot of wonderful people, and was able to do quite a bit of traveling. All of the hard work and practice was worth it.
Andrea: I never got to play sports or be on any kind of team. Something I would still like to do and will do someday is learn how to play the piano.
Thank you for telling us a bit about your younger selves. Now I’m eager to have you share with us about poetry breaks. I know that you share a passion for poetry. Can each of you describe where that passion came from?
Growing up, we both enjoyed songs and rhymes, neither of us really developed a passion for poetry until we went to college. We met and became best friends in our undergraduate college cohort. We had an amazing professor of literacy named, Dr. Terrell Young. He exposed us to many possibilities for integrating poetry into our classrooms and we really took what we learned from him to heart! We give students as many opportunities as we can to expose them to poetry and integrate it into the learning across the curriculum. We made a vow to make it fun for kids.
Last year, during April/National Poetry Month, I signed up at Poets.org to receive a poem in my in-box each day. I’ve loved this way of starting my day! It sounds to me as if you two have done something similar in your classrooms, with “poetry breaks.” Can you describe what a poetry break is?
Being moms ourselves, we remember how hectic and rushed our mornings were and wanted to be able to ensure every student had a positive, relaxing, literacy rich start to their day. So the first 15-20 minutes of the morning, students do their morning routine, math entry task, and then enjoy reading poetry around the room either alone or with a partner. This allows stressed-out students to restart their day on a calmer note. Another good time to do poetry breaks is after lunch. I’ve tried three times a day but I found that it works best to do poetry breaks twice a day.
In the beginning of the year, we model what a poetry break looks like. We introduce the book, read the poem fluently, and then tell why we picked it, using one or more of the six-traits of writing (word choice, sentence fluency, idea, organization and voice). Using the 6-traits of writing supports the use of academic language in the classroom.
We make a poetry sign-up chart (see below) and kids put a post-it note with their name to reserve their day to share their poem aloud.
Andrea’s poetry break chart
Usually within the first two days of school, we ask for volunteers after they have observed the modeling. It doesn’t take long for the shyness to wear off and for students to have the confidence they need to jump in and go for it. After a few weeks of allowing students to sign up on their own, we have had to resort to assigning students a weekly poetry break spot because poetry breaks become so popular. It took us several years to figure out that if we just assign a day and not use a post-it note system, it can help prevent us becoming the “poetry police.” We try to schedule our struggling readers on Friday so we can practice reading their poems with them or make sure they have the practice/support that they need.
Poetry breaks can be done alone or together. It’s funny because even when students are absent on their day they will ask if they can please perform their poetry break. And of course, elementary students always enjoy finding the silliest poems that describe things like picking your nose, using the bathroom, kissing, and anything else that will cause their classroom family to giggle about. Our rule for deciding if a poem is too silly for school or not is: If the principal or your parents were to walk in the room would you STILL feel comfortable reading your poetry choice aloud?
What prompted you to incorporate poetry breaks in your classrooms?
It is something we both loved learning about from Dr. Young so we gave it a try our first year of teaching when we taught in a job sharing situation. We each taught half time in a third grade classroom. Poetry breaks quickly became the favorite time of the day and our students’ fluency rates sky-rocketed by spring. Each time a student signs up for a poetry break, they read and practice many different poems before they choose the one they want to perform. It makes practicing fluency lots of fun and also increases comprehension. We also learned quickly how poetry breaks contribute to building a kind, caring, and supportive classroom community as students work together practicing poems, creating a literacy rich environment, providing a literacy
opportunity for students who finish work early, and allowing students to be exposed to many authors and hear hundreds of poems over the course of the year.
What has surprised you most about including poetry in this way?
The feedback we get every single year from parents is always a nice surprise. They are constantly telling us that they grew up disliking poetry or never being exposed to it. The parents are thrilled that their kids are asking for poetry books for Christmas and performing poetry breaks in the evenings at home! Many parents tell us they have learned to love poetry because of their children.
(check in tomorrow for more from Nicki and Andrea!)